By Stéphanie Gagné
This article describes the approach used for artist interviews by students of the Queens University, Canada. It includes links to sample Letters of Information and Consent forms that are used by this university in interview preparation.
In the Master of Art Conservation Program at Queen’s University in Ontario (Canada), the course History, Technology and Conservation of Contemporary Art (ARTC-823) is offered to the first and second year students. This course is mandatory for all students in the paintings specialisation and optional for the students of other specialisations. During this course, the main assignment is to interview an artist. The purpose of this activity is to show that interviewing a contemporary artist helps to provide answers to current and future questions regarding contemporary conservation issues. A short overview will be given of the set up of this assignment as it took place in the spring of 2006 under the supervision of Professor Barbara Klempan.
The students, six first year and three second year students, structured their interview in accordance with the article “Towards a method for artists’ Interviews related to conservation problems of modern and contemporary art” found in the preprints of the ICOM Committee for Conservation Meeting, 12th triennial meeting, Lyon, 29 August - 3 September 1999: vol.1, by Ysbrand Hummelen, Nathalie Menke, Daniela Petovic, Dionne Sille, and Tatja Scholte. As a guideline, students were encouraged to familiarize themselves with the acquisition questionnaire for paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and the “Decision Making Model for the Conservation and Restoration of Modern Art” produced by the Foundation for the Conservation of Modern Art and published in: Modern Art: Who Cares? Amsterdam 1999.
Selection/Contact with the artist
Within the limited time of one month, students had to first contact an artist. Some students decided to interview young artists whilst others decided to interview well established artists such as William James (Bill) Vincent. Students had to prepare a customized interview questionnaire and present a consent form to the artist asking for permission to record the interview, take photos and present a power point presentation about the interview in class to their colleagues and professors at Queen’s University. It was very important, from an ethical standpoint that the artist was aware of the purpose of the research and interview and that he/she understood as well, the terms under which he/she participated in the project. The consent form is intended to protect both the artist’s and the interviewer’s rights. Sample interview consent forms, such as the one used for this assignment, can be found on the Queen’s University website(Examples of Letters of Information and Consent Forms).
Checklist forms were used by students to ensure that no questions were left out. For the majority of students, their interviews were divided in three parts. In Part 1, general questions about the artist’s creative process and his/her thematic content were asked. The questions aimed to discover how the artist works, from conception to construction. In Part 2, specific questions about the technique and materials that the artist used were asked in order to understand what the materials mean to the artist and how he/she uses them. Useful information was recorded on how the pieces are intended to look and to be displayed. In Part 3, the interview was concluded with more specific questions regarding his/her thoughts on deterioration, conservation and preservation issues. This last part of the interview was to learn the view of the artist on any future conservation interventions and the extent of possible treatments for preserving the materials and techniques.
Some of the interviews were filmed and recorded. Also, photos of the artist, of his/her artwork and of the studio and materials were taken as visual documentation. This allowed for data collection about the artist’s works in their original environment. Photos provide information on the state of his/her work at that moment and information on the works and tools present in the studio. After the interview, the students had to provide an interview transcript and summary, and prepare a power point presentation which was to be presented to the class and professors in order to present and discuss the experience.
For my interview, I met the artist William James (Bill) Vincent (1953-). This artist is from London (Ontario) and has lived and worked in Quebec City since 1975. My two-hour interview with Bill Vincent took place in his studio in Québec City (Quebec), on February 20, 2006. This artist works with a variety of media. He has worked in printmaking, painting, sculpture, monumental artwork and more recently in digital imagery. He kindly gave me permission to take photos of him, of his studio and of his artworks.
During the interview, the artist appeared to be comfortable and I succeeded in creating a good dialogue between the artist and myself. Since Vincent is a well established artist, he has extensive expertise in the art domain, and during the interview, he gave me many examples of successful or unsuccessful experiments that he had tried. As he was very interested in conservation/preservation issues, the interview rapidly shifted toward these issues. The artist often asked me questions about conservation problems and what I thought about them. This put me in a somewhat delicate situation, since I had to keep in mind that I was not there to do an evaluation of the artwork from a conservation perspective, but rather to record his thoughts about conservation/preservation issues.
During my talk with Bill Vincent, I learned that an interview is a very important source of information. It should be well organised beforehand and prepared before meeting the artist in order to collect all of the information needed. In the case of contemporary artworks, record-keeping of the artist’s processes is certainly an important preventive conservation measure. I succeeded in gaining “insight into the artist’s attitude toward damage and the natural ageing process” Hummelen, Ysbrand, Nathalie Menke, Daniela Petovic, Dionne Sille, and Tatja Scholte. “Towards a method for artists’ interviews related to conservation problems of modern and contemporary art”. Preprints ICOM Committee for Conservation Meeting, 12th triennial meeting, Lyon, 29 August-3 September 1999: Preprints, vol.1 Painting I: Conservation and restoration of paintings, vol.1, 1999: 312. that will inform conservators if the artworks could be treated and how damage might occur over time. The interview assignment was very informative and interesting.
In short, through this assignment, students learned that interviewing a contemporary artist can provide valuable information on the artist’s technique and intentions, and on the choice of materials and their meaning. This information is crucial when, in the future, the art works have to be exhibited, preserved and conserved. The artist is a primary source of this precious information.